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What is philosophy? (1)

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By Douglas Anele

Every columnist who writes regularly for a newspaper or magazine faces some fundamental challenges. The first one is the problem of topic or theme to discuss in each edition. Generally, there are innumerable things to write about, but the columnist has to choose the ones that are interesting, informative, educative, and relevant to a wide variety of potential readers.

Concerning the second challenge, revolves around the question: to whom is the essay targeted? Different topics appeal to different audiences such that one must endeavour to capture the widest variety of readers with each essay. Another issue is the restriction either from the management or editor of the magazine that publishes the article. As a columnist who has been writing consistently for the past twenty-one years, the various editors that handled my column sometimes either remove words or paragraphs in the essays I submitted or inserted words that water down unnecessarily the point I was making.

On several occasions, I am told that the reason for doing so is to remove statements that might be libellous or that, according to management’s policy, the integrity of so-and-so person who occupies this or that office must not be questioned. This last constraint can be quite irritating for a philosopher who believes strongly that nothing in this world is beyond the purifying fire of ratiocinative scrutiny based on facts and sound reasoning. Why should anyone, including the President, judges and Supreme Court justices be exempted from valid criticism? Moreover, although libel should be avoided, stating the truth especially concerning the dark sides of big men and thick madams in the society may be risky but certainly not libellous – a life without risks is not worth living. At any rate, unless Nigeria has degenerated into a closed autocratic society pretending to be democratic, the citizens should not be unduly harassed or intimidated by government and the high and mighty with threats of libel for stating inconvenient truths about them.

To be candid, it is irksome to continuously write about what has been happening in Nigeria especially since My 29, 2015 because it appears that those in authority, particularly at the highest levels of governance, are pachydermatous to reason and commonsense. In other words, it is a complete waste of time proffering solutions and advising the current set of politicians on how they can resolve the hydra-headed problems confronting us at this time. The voices of columnists critical of this Buhari administration are like the voice of the biblical John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness with little attention from the general public. After all, a sizeable number of top public officials, including the President, hardly read anything (except perhaps the Bible or Quran), let alone study and learn from the biographies of transformational leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Lee Kwan Yew, Winston Churchill, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela and others to get inspiration on how to achieve greatness as a leader. Moreover, Nigeria is in a bad place right now, such that dwelling on the parlous situation all the time or most of the time is exasperating and depressing. Hence, it is reasonable at this time to step aside from focus on Nigeria  and immerse ourselves in the exciting world of philosophy.

READ ALSO: Sport, philosophy and the war of civilizations!

For starters, what is philosophy? One of the first things a fresh undergraduate of philosophy learns in his first encounter with the discipline is that it has no universally accepted definition. Indeed, one of my colleagues, a Professor of Law at the University of Lagos, describes philosophers as confusionists who seldom agree on anything. Of course, he is just being mischievous. Now, although philosophers disagree about virtually everything, including the definition of their subject or field, the disagreement has a sanitising effect in reducing logical and conceptual confusion associated with what people believe or claim to know. In philosophy, the more exciting the argument the greater the possibility of clarity and enlightenment. So, for those ignorant of philosophy, I suggest that they pay close attention to what follows in the remaining portions of our discussion.

Etymologically, the word philosophy is derived from two Greek words, philo and sophia which, when translated into English, mean love or pursuit and wisdom respectively. The combination of both words, philosophia, means “love of wisdom.” It is in this sense that the iconic triumvirate of ancient Greek philosophy, namely, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood and practised philosophy more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Whereas the definition of philosophy as love of wisdom captures a fundamental element in the enterprise of philosophy, it is important to note that connotations of the key words ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’ are not easy to capture completely in a single proposition. Having said that, philosophy is so roomy, so capacious that one can talk of the philosophy of the infrastructure of disciplines, wherein philosophy beams its critical searchlight, as the parent discipline and queen of all sciences, on other fields such as history, mathematics, science, law, medicine, and so on. Accordingly, we have philosophy of history, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science etc.

Most introductory books on philosophy contain a checklist of definitions of the subject. Expectedly, many of these definitions overlap; some merely complement others whereas others pull in different directions. The British philosopher, mathematician, and logician, Bertrand Russell, says that philosophy is a halfway house between science and religion, and occupies a no-man’s land between the two. He claims further that once definite answers to any question become available, the topic ceases to be philosophical and migrates to the relevant science or sciences.

In their popular work, Philosophy, Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll identify some widespread conceptions of philosophy, and observe that the philosopher has been engaged in considering problems that are of importance to all of us either directly or indirectly. Through careful critical examination, the philosopher evaluates the information and beliefs we have about the cosmos as a whole and the world of human affairs. From his inquiry, he oftentimes formulates some general, systematic, coherent, and logically consistent model of our knowledge-claims and appropriate criteria for evaluating them. As science generates new information about the world, the philosopher would be obliged to revise or modify his weltanschauung or overall picture of the world and the place of humans in it.

David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton in their book, Philosophy Bites, sampled the opinions of different philosophers concerning their understanding and conception of what the discipline is about. For example, Marilyn Adams avers that philosophy is thinking really hard about the most important questions and trying to bring analytic clarity to both the questions and the answers, whereas Simon Blackburn believes that it is a process of reflection on the deepest concepts, that is structures of thought, that make up the way in which we think about the world.

Richard Bradley informs us that philosophy is 99 percent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in. Wendy Brown conceives philosophy as the inquiry about life’s meanings. It asks about who we are, what we might be, how we conceive ourselves, and how we can even think these questions. John Campbell claims that there is no general answer to the question of what philosopher is, but Tony Coady thinks that philosophy “involves a lot of analytic work: a lot of analysis of concepts…it is a very argumentative profession.” Anthony C. Grayling’s definition of philosophy is similar to that of Bertrand Russell.

According to Grayling, philosophy is an inquiry into all those things which we do not yet properly and fully understand. When “we do get some grip on a problem or a set of problems, we can hive that off into a special science or social science – although those natural and social sciences tend to end up back as philosophical problems too – being those problems half obscure, half unformed, where the questions are themselves doubtful, where we’re peering into the dark and don’t yet have a good sense of what we’re doing. And that’s what philosophy is; it’s inquiry into the mainly unknown.” Chandran Kukathas sees philosophy as an attempt to think systematically abot the presuppositions of a given topic; to try to understand that topic in terms of concepts that give you a complete account of something. Jeff McMahan, when asked to define philosophy, just laughed and confessed that he has no idea what philosophy is. M.M. McCabe proposes that philosophy is thinking about thinking, a definition that resonates with Alex Neill’s idea that philosophy is thinking that is obsessed with clarity.

To be continued…


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